It was a high-risk mission on a high-profile committee during wildly partisan times, and Sen. Rob Portman could not say no.
Portman was one year into his first term as a Republican senator from Ohio in 2011 when Senate leadership tapped him to be one of 12 members of a bipartisan, bicameral commission, nicknamed “the supercommittee,” that was tasked with slicing $1.2 trillion from the deficit.
He entered with the highest hopes. He ended it bitterly disappointed, the committee having failed to meet its goal, with one Democrat reportedly comparing the near-agreement to “a one-night stand.”
Now, 10 years later, Portman is serving on another high-risk, high-profile panel that brokered a deal on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill set to be voted on by the Senate as soon as this weekend.
Whether it passes or not, his work on the bill is a fitting coda for a lawmaker who is said to prefer policymaking to politicking, as Portman, 65, prepares to retire at the end of this term.
“He sees himself as somebody who is a legislator, a policymaker more than a politician per se,” said Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at The Ohio State University.
“This is an opportunity to show that Washington can get something done,” said Curt Steiner, an Ohio Republican political consultant who managed Portman’s first House campaign in 1993. “And it’s been a while since we’ve seen that.”
For Portman, forging the deal along with a group of 21 senators, including lead Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, is proof that Congress can still embrace the art of the deal.
“It’s an example of where we can make progress,” he said the night the Senate agreed on cloture to the motion to proceed, after a gleeful, giddy news conference with the other negotiators. “But also a model for the future for other areas.”
The deal has its detractors. Progressive Democrats say it has punted in the fight against climate change, and conservative Republicans have blasted the pay-fors as phony. The conservative Heritage Action political action committee has sent out an alert urging conservatives to vote against it, saying it is “paid” for via “slick accounting tricks.”
And former President Donald Trump has accused Republicans who support the plan of “delivering a big win by caving to the Radical Democrats on infrastructure.”
Though both the Gang of 22 and the supercommittee were similarly high-profile, Portman insists there are key differences that may have impacted the outcome.
When he joined the supercommittee, which was tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion from the deficit to avoid massive, across-the-board cuts to defense and discretionary programs. His advisers urged him to say no, realizing that the probability of success was low. One Senate colleague told him the process would be “akin to a root canal.”
Portman himself referenced the sequester threat as “the Sword of Damocles.”
But Portman, a 12-year House member from Cincinnati and a former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget with years of experience in fiscal policy, felt compelled.
He said yes, joining a group that included Democrats Patty Murray of Washington, Max Baucus of Montana, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, as well as Republicans Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Dave Camp of Michigan.
The group met late nights and into weekends, with Portman telling a reporter he had “never spent so much time in Washington, even when [he] was in the Cabinet.”
In the end, the impasse could not be breached. After the talks collapsed, Portman lamented to reporters that “the political will just wasn’t there.”
“I wish things had been different,” he said then. “But I must tell you … I don’t know what I could’ve done more than I did.”
“Few people took it as seriously and had as much hope for the potential for bipartisan compromise on this incredibly important issue as Portman did,” said Jeff Sadosky, a GOP lobbyist who was an aide to Portman during that time.
Ten years later, the Gang of 22 emerged comparatively organically, more out of a will to succeed than from being tapped for a task.
While the supercommittee, Portman said, was leadership-driven, the Gang of 22 was “self-selected.” The supercommittee had members of all different ideologies; the Gang was more moderate. The supercommittee, he acknowledges, was “a little more formal,” than the bipartisan group, which first met over Zoom, then shifted to the Capitol during long nights where they huddled over takeout food, sometimes with a trio of White House advisers.
“I think it was important we learn to trust each other in the group,” he said, comparing the group to a family that had to work out differences. “You have to figure out a way to get everyone moving in the same direction.”
While everyone in the Gang of 22 seemed interested in getting to yes, that wasn’t necessarily the case in 2011. “Democrats weren’t going to touch entitlement spending,” he said of the supercommittee. “Republicans weren’t going to raise taxes.” Neither side, he said, would budge.
Portman had watched President Barack Obama and then Trump advocate for an infrastructure bill. When President Joe Biden put forward a deal that called for spending more than $2 trillion, proposed tax increases and included programs that Republicans did not believe should be categorized as infrastructure, Portman started talking to Sinema.
She and other moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, shared some of Portman’s concerns. “They were not interested in huge tax increases,” he said.
Some in the group had worked together to broker a deal on an end-of-the-year spending package in the previous Congress. Buoyed by that experience, the group converged again.
“This was an effort that grew from the center out,” he said.
That group dynamic may have been lacking in 2011.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a member of the supercommittee, said the months of compromise followed by disappointment “broke our hearts.”
Since then, he said, he’s been reluctant to join high-profile committees. He was asked to join the committee investigating Jan. 6 but declined, in part because of his experience in 2011.
“It’s not on my bucket list,” he said, remembering that when he served on the supercommittee, “August, September and October were gone.”
While Portman is not an infrastructure expert — he serves on none of the committees of jurisdiction — Portman’s fluency in sources of revenue helped the group figure out pay-fors.
“He’s a great negotiator,” Upton said of Portman. “He’s calm. He knows his stuff. And he’s not argumentative.”
He’s also a detail-minded policy wonk with “an absolutely insatiable appetite for this kind of stuff,” said Steiner, the Ohio political consultant.
“He gets just as excited sitting down looking at a briefing book as he does going on a kayak trip,” Steiner said of the avid outdoor sportsman, who forged a friendship with Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado by practicing rolling kayaks in the House pool.
The retiring senator may have been freed a bit by the fact that he’s not running for reelection, said Beck.
While the parties weren’t encouraged to give each other a win back in 2011, that sentiment is stronger now, with Trump issuing statements urging Republicans to reject the plan rather than give Biden a win.
But Portman doesn’t have the threat of a primary challenge hanging over his head.
He also “doesn’t have to spend any time at a fundraiser right now,” said Steiner, who said the risks have changed now that politics aren’t as much of a force in the equation.
“There’s always the risk of failure,” Steiner said. “But the greater risk is doing nothing.”